Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Written by: Keiko Niwa & Masashi Ando & Hiromasa Yonebayashi based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson.
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld (Anna), Kiernan Shipka (Marnie), Geena Davis (Yoriko Sasaki), John C. Reilly (Kiyomasa Oiwa), Raini Rodriguez (Nobuko Kadoya), Ellen Burstyn (Nan), Kathy Bates (Mrs. Kadoya), Vanessa Williams (Hisako), Catherine O'Hara (Elderly Lady).
When Marnie Was There is the last film – for now anyways – from Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli. who is responsible for giving the world the work of Hayao Miyazaki, as well as many other great animated films. The great Miyazaki, whose name is synonymous with Ghibli, went out on a high note two years ago with The Wind Rises, and the almost as great Isao Takahata, had one final great film in him as well, with last year’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Given those standards, it’s impossible not to be somewhat let down that When Marnie Was There, from Hiromasa Yonehayashi, is Ghibli’s last film. It is, like Yonehayashi’s first film, The Secret World of Arietty, a relatively minor effort when considered alongside their truly great films. Yet the film is undeniably still a Ghibli film –with the unmistakable gentleness, and beautiful animation we have come to expect from them. It may not be great Ghibli – but even minor Ghibli has its charms.
The movie is about a young teenager named Anna, whose parents died years ago, and battling major depression – not the normal teenage girl depression in movies like this, but a depression that verges of being suicidal. She has no friends, she barely speaks to anyone, and despite her foster mother’s best efforts, she cannot seem to help Anna. The foster mother decides that what Anna needs is time away – and sends her to the seashore to live with her Aunt and Uncle for the summer. She does this under the guise that the sea air will be good for Anna’s asthma, but in reality, I think Anna just needs a change of scenery for a while. When she arrives at the seashore, she is almost immediately drawn to a mansion – said to be haunted, and only accessible by boat. It’s here she meets Marnie – another young teenager, who is Anna’s opposite in almost every way – from physical appearance to personality. The two girls develop a close friendship – each giving the other what they are lacking at home.
The film is a gentle ode to female friendship that moves at such a leisurely pace at times it doesn’t feel like it’s moving at all. It’s the type of film, like many of Ghibli’s films that is best viewed as a child may see it – with innocence, rather than adult cynicism, which could kill a gentle film like this (I know some saw the trailer and wondered if it was about a lesbian relationship – which is not). The film is a blend of fantasy and reality, only really revealing what is what in the last act, and even then, perhaps not entirely. Like all of Ghibli’s films, the animation is beautiful from start to finish – a film that doesn’t try to blind you with its colors or movement, like much American animation does, but has the same kind of gentle look and feel as the story.
For many, When Marnie Was There will move too slowly. I fully admit, it did to me feel at times as if the story wasn’t moving forward for fairly long stretches. But Ghibli has never put that sort of emphasis on constant action or plot, but likes to take it’s time getting anywhere. Even by those generous standards though, When Marnie Was There is slow moving – and I cannot help but feel the movie’s finale lacks a little bit of the emotional impact it could have had had it gotten there a little quicker.
It’s sad to think that Studio Ghibli won’t be making another movie for a while – perhaps ever, no one is really sure. Perhaps it was necessary – after all, between them Miyazaki and Takahata directed 14 of Ghibli’s 20 features, so their retirement was going to change the studio anyway. Still, even if Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son), who have each made 2 films for Ghibli, were not quite up to the level of their predecessors, their films are still beautiful, and I wish each was given more of an opportunity to grow. Maybe they will get that chance somewhere – but for now anyway, it won’t be at Ghibli. When Marnie Was There marks the end of an era, I wish didn’t have to end – and that by itself makes the ending rather emotional – and appropriate.